Backpage.com has been dubbed “the world’s top online brothel” and there’s no mystery why.
A quick search in the adult section of the Backpage.com website will yield advertisements that allude to erotic services provided by “Young Sexy Asians,” Thick & Juicy Ricans” and “Blonde Barbies.”
On December 23, outgoing California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed new criminal charges against Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer and former majority shareholders James Larkin and Michael Lacy. The 40-count criminal compliant comes two weeks after a Sacramento judge tossed out earlier pimping charges, due to protections afforded by the Communications Decency Act, which states that online content providers are not responsible for the actions of third-party users.
While most advertisements posted in the “Escorts” section on Backpage.com likely come from consenting prostitutes, sex traffickers— who exploit women and minors through force, threats, fraud, and/or coercion—are posting others. The latter is what has prompted an all-out legal battle in civil and criminal court against the website’s founders and administrators.
However, there’s a catch-22: If Backpage.com closes, the commercial sex advertisements will most likely be displaced to an alternative online platform and law enforcement could lose a critical tool to combat sex trafficking.
While consenting and trafficked sex workers have been advertised by third parties on the website, that was not the impetus for the creation of Backpage.com, nor was it for Craigslist.org, which paved the way for virtual commercial sex advertisements. (After Craigslist closed its erotic/adult services section, the advertisements migrated to Backpage.)
Craigslist began in the mid-1990’s, after a self-proclaimed “nerd” named Craig Newmark created a listerv of friends and acquaintances to keep them informed about events, job openings, available housing, and culture in San Francisco.
Once the list grew to over 240 e-mail addresses, Newmark decided to post the information for public consumption on an eponymous website.
Shortly after Craigslist became nationally popularized in the early 2000’s, Village Voice Media created Backpage.com. At the time, Village Voice Media administered a number of news outlets that relied on paid advertisements to support their journalism, and Craigslist’s competitive free platform for classifieds ads represented millions of dollars of lost revenue.
The website’s name, Backpage, was a nod to the back page of print newspapers, which typically contained classified advertisements. Although attorneys general alleged that these websites were unlawfully designed for the purpose of promoting commercial sex and evading law enforcement, the truth was that Craig Newmark created Craigslist to perform a legitimate service.
In contrast, the former owners of Village Voice Media, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, created Backpage to support their journalism.
However, their classified websites eventually morphed into something they hadn’t intended. The postings on both platforms were driven by what the market appeared to want: a commercial platform for sex services. Both websites accordingly created “erotic services” sections.
Given the potential for misuse, Newmark enabled users to “red flag” offensive postings, which could prompt deletion from the virtual commons. However, local level law enforcement took notice and requested cooperation, information and additional oversight from the website.
In addition to the user- generated “flags,” the website began requiring third parties to provide working phone numbers and valid credit cards, so there could be a paper trail for law enforcement, if needed.
After becoming aware of the sex trafficking on his website, Newmark even vowed to donate all profits from the erotic section to various charities, particularly those that addressed child exploitation and human trafficking.
However, it wasn’t enough.
Craigslist had been dubbed “the Wal-Mart of child sex trafficking” and attorneys general from across the country claimed that the site was “the only player in the sex industry who is in a position to stop these ads.”
In 2010, Craigslist bowed under national pressure and removed the adult services section from the website, but the commercial sex advertisements didn’t stop. They were simply displaced to other websites, most to Backpage.com.
Fortunately, Backpage.com also cooperates with law enforcement and the advertisements are still used to rescue victims, arrest and prosecute offenders, protect erroneously criminalized sex trafficking survivors, track patterns in the commercial sex market, and prevent the trafficking of consenting sex workers.
The legal actions still pending against Backpage.com are considered by some as necessary to combat the scourge of sex trafficking.
Yet, others with inside knowledge about sex trafficking and the efficacy of law enforcement believe that this crusade against Backpage.com is futile and could actually further inhibit America’s anti-trafficking efforts.
In their crusade against Backpage.com, anti-trafficking advocates, attorneys general, and legislators are forgetting that correlation does not equal causation. Just because the plurality of sex trafficking cases involve advertisements from the website, does not mean they are the root of the phenomenon nor the conduit.
The fact is that the Internet has modernized the commercial sex industry; and while the majority of current cases may involve Backpage, this could simply be because the website is the primary resource being used by law enforcement to set up stings—and its administrators are highly cooperative with investigations (just like Craigslist was six years ago).
Ultimately, there is no evidentiary or theoretical basis for why any attorney general or legislator should rationally expect sex trafficking or the commercial sex industry to be eliminated or curbed by a closure of Backpage.com. What is more likely is that the advertisements will move elsewhere, perhaps to the Dark Web, on sites less inclined to cooperate with law enforcement and thus creating additional barriers to combat the burgeoning commercial sex industry online.
Instead of attempting to criminalize Backpage.com, legislators should focus on adapting policies that strengthen communication, cooperation and data-sharing with law enforcement, so that we can better use these websites as tools for investigation and victim rescue.
Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium”, is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio. She is also a regular contributor to The Hill. Kim welcomes readers’ comments.